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Victoria zoos train Maremma bodyguards in bid to save bandicoots

Maremma dogs have protected a colony of little penguins and conservationists hope their next mission will be as successful

Cooper the Maremma gets acclimatised to bandicoots with a stuffed bandicoot toy. Photograph: Beate Sexton

Teams of highly trained dogs will be deployed as “bodyguards” for bandicoots threatened by feral cats and foxes, in an initiative which could help reverse the precipitous decline in several other Australian native species.

Zoos Victoria is to run an extensive trial to determine whether groups of Maremma dogs can become trusted allies to the eastern barred bandicoot, which has been virtually wiped out in Australia.

The small marsupial is extinct in the wild on mainland Australia, with a modest population remaining in Tasmania. A captive population of around 400 bandicoots is spread across four breeding sites in Australia.

Feral cats and foxes have preyed upon the bandicoots with disastrous results. Previous attempts to breed them in fenced areas have had limited success.

Eastern barred bandicoots. The creature is extinct in the wild on mainland Australia, with a modest population remaining in Tasmania. Photograph: Zoos Victoria

Zoos Victoria will take on a full-time dog trainer to work with seven Maremma puppies. The dogs, which like to work in pairs, will be sent to three different test sites in Victoria to see if they can effectively protect bandicoots without the need for fences. The spare Maremma puppy will be used by Zoos Victoria as a fundraising ambassador.

Maremma dogs, a type of sheepdog that originated in Italy, have been used for centuries to guard livestock. But they have also recently been used in more unusual conservation efforts.

In 2006, the dogs were introduced to Middle Island in Victoria, to help protect a colony of little penguins. Foxes had wreaked havoc on the island, reducing the 1,500-strong colony to less than 10 by killing swaths of the penguins.

However, the introduction of Oddball, a Maremma dog that previously guarded chickens, provided the penguins with some canine muscle. Oddball, who was later joined by other dogs, chased away the foxes and penguin numbers subsequently revived.

Maremma dogs are considered ideal for conservation work because they can bond to an array of other creatures while also viewing feral pests as mortal enemies. The dogs have formed friendships with sheep, goats, chickens and gannets in the past. In controlled experiments, sheep that heard dingo calls instinctively ran behind the dogs for protection.

Source: TheGuardian Read more see more